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Spotlight on El Salvador
Américas / June 2011

By Larry Luxner

In the United States, Nov. 11 is Veteran’s Day, but in El Salvador, that day marks the anniversary of a major anti-government offensive launched in 1989 by the Frente Farabundo Martí de Liberación Nacional (FMLN) — a leftist rebel group whose successors are today running El Salvador.

At the solemn Monumento a los Desparecidos [Monument to the Disappeared], the names of over 25,000 victims of El Salvador’s long-running civil war are etched in an 85-meter-long wall of black granite. Tourists and locals alike visit this solemn reminder of El Salvador’s violent past which bears a striking resemblance to Washington’s Vietnam Veterans Memorial.

“We come here every year on Nov. 11, the day of the offensive, and also on Nov. 2, the day of the dead,” said Carolina Solis, a middle-aged woman visiting the monument in the heart of San Salvador’s Parque Cuscutlán to honor the memory of her brother, Edwin Omar Solis.

Asked if El Salvador is better off today with the FMLN in power, Solis said that indeed they were.

“T things are changing, but the right-wing government left us a lot of problems — education, for example,” she said in answer to a question. “During that government, kids were going to school barefoot.”

Not far from Parque Cuscutlán, at the downtown Catedral Metropolitana de San Salvador, lies the tomb of one of the key figures of El Salvador’s civil war: Archbishop Oscar Romero.

A champion of liberation theology and an outspoken opponent of the military regime, Romero was assassinated Mar. 24, 1980 — one day after giving a sermon in which he urged government soldiers, as Christians, to obey God’s orders by refusing to carry out human-rights abuses against civilians.

Cindy Portello hadn’t even been born when Romero was shot by a death squad believed to have been trained and funded by the United States. But the 23-year-old woman from El Salvador’s oriente [eastern] region says she admires Romero for standing up to injustice in her country.

“I come here in key moments of my life, whenever I begin something new,” Portello said as she sat in the darkness by the famous priests’s tomb, scribbling private thoughts in her notepad. “Oscar Romero was a voice for those who didn’t have a voice. He realized the government was abusing human rights. He knew what was going on.”

El Salvador’s civil war, which killed some 75,000 people between 1979 and 1992, is never far from the surface anywhere you go in this densely populated land of 7.5 million — the smallest of Central America’s seven nations. Indeed, it was the second-longest military conflict in Latin American history, ranking only behind Guatemala’s civil war in bloodshed and duration.

But the country has made tremendous strides since then. In 2009, former journalist Mauricio Funes of the FMLN became president, defeating Rodrigo Avila of the Nationalist Republican Alliance (ARENA) in balloting widely deemed to be free and fair. It marked the first time in 20 years ARENA had lost an election.

“This is the happiest night of my life, and I want it to be the night of El Salvador’s greatest hope,” Funes said upon being declared the winner. Since then, the 51-year-old president has continued to inspire hope. Despite a struggling economy and rising crime (El Salvador has one of the world’s highest homicide rates), Funes is still backed by 79% of voters, making him Latin America’s most popular leader.

“The president has fulfilled the FMLN’s hopes on social policy. Basic education is now free, and poor children are given school uniforms and shoes,” says a Dec. 16, 2010, article in The Economist, no bastion of leftist propaganda. “These reforms have resulted in an additional 22,000 children enrolling in school this year, the government says. He has further stretched the state’s coffers to cover health programs; billboards around the caital promoe vaccination days for children. And as a former television journalist, he has shown a gift for sound bites and grand gestures, such as apologizing for the atrocities committed by the government during the civil war.

“But Mr. Funes has resisted the FMLN’s demands for a more radical agenda. Most businessmen are satisfied that his visit to Cuba in October, ending nearly 50 years of cold-shouldering, was aimed at importing cheap medicines, not the revolution.”

One of those businessmen is Eduardo Quiñónez Caminos, director of the hotel division at Grupo Agrisal.

“This is the first time we have a leftist conservative government,” Quiñonez told Américas. “Most people expected a Marxist-Leninist approach to government after the FMLN came to power. But this president has proven that he’s not so left-wing. He’s more of a centrist, and he has the biggest popularity ratings of any president we’ve had in the past 20 years.”

Quiñonez was interviewed over breakfast at the Crowne Plaza Hotel, official venue of the OAS General Assembly in early June. Between the Crowne Plaza and a nearby Holiday Inn, Agrisal has over 400 hotel rooms in El Salvador.

In addition, Grupo Agrisal has launched two important projects worth more than $50 million each. One is the 18-story Torre Futura, with over 16,000 square meters of office space and a 4,000-square-meter retail center. The other is Plaza Mundo, a shopping mall in Soyapango whose 60,000 square meters makes it the second-largest commercial center in El Salvador.

Asked what the biggest obstacle to doing business in El Salvador, Quiñonez replied “security” without any hesitation.

“Our crime rates are still very high, and there’s a big problem with the maras [gangs],” he said. “The government is heading in the right direction with these issues, but of course it takes time to fight crime. Everybody feels threatened.”

In fact, the theme of this year’s General Assembly is “Citizen Security in the Americas,” which was proposed by the Salvadoran government to members of the OAS Permanent Council last year.

“Your choice of topic speaks of your understanding of what is important to the Americas,” said Albert Ramdin, assistant secretary general of the OAS, during a recent meeting in Washington with El Salvador’s foreign minister, Hugo Martínez. “Security and development are both issues of main concern for our people, and therefore the eyes of the world will be on El Salvador during the first week of June.”

Ramdin added that “we should be proud that a country like El Salvador — a relatively smal country but an important member of the OAS — makes itself available to host such a meeting, with all the costs it implies.”

For his part, Martínez reaffirmed his country’s willingness “to strengthen the hemisphere and take concrete actions that benefit the peoples of the Americas, especially in an area that is very sensitive, such as security.”

Interviewed at Foreign Ministry headquarters in San Salvador, Martínez said that El Salvador — with the collaboration of the other Central American countries and the United States — is organizing an international conference directly after the General Assembly to focus on regional security. The meeting will address issues such as finance, technology and cooperation in aviation and maritime patrols to intercept drug traffickers.

“The U.S. has a specific vision for Central America. Before, this whole area was seen within the context of Plan Mérida, and Central America was diluted,” he explained. “We’ve always told them that if there’s a Plan Colombia in the south and a Plan Mérida in the north, then the pressure from both sides would push all the narcotraffickers towards the center.”

The result has been a U.S. program called the Central America Regional Security Initiative (CARSI). Yet since that program’s establishment in 2008, funds allotted to CARSI’s seven members amount to around $260 million — less than one-fourth of Mexico’s share of counternarcotics assistance.

The irony is that Central American nations have confiscated more than three times as much cocaine as confiscated in Mexico — about 100 metric tons per year. And the northern half of the isthmus, comprising Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador, is now the most violent region in the world outside of active war zones.

“We don’t only want to punish criminals, we also want a social development plan,” said Martínez. “Even though we must combat crime with all our strength, we must also generate opportunities for the new generation. If we don’t, they will become the perfect targets for criminals.”

El Salvador, which in 2001 swapped the colon for the U.S. U.S. dollar as its official currency, expects to see 2% economic growth this year, up from 1% growth in 2010 and a dismal 3.5% contraction in 2009.

“Despite the economic crisis, we’re getting investments into the country, and not just from traditional countries. For example, we’re promoting our products in Russia,” said Martínez.

“We know that to bring more investment, we cannot offer only political stability but also the rule of law — and President Funes has been the main defender of the rule of law. Investors need clear and secure regulations, and they need to know we won’t be changing the rules from one moment to the next.”

Notably, El Salvador was one of only three countries (the other two being Brazil and Chile) visited by President Barack Obama in his first official tour of Latin America.

One of the perennial issues El Salvador has with the United States is what to do about not only the estimated 217,000 Salvadorans living in the U.S. under Temporary Protected Status (TPS), but also those facing possible deportation.

El Salvador has a higher proportion of its citizens residing in the United States than any nation on Earth. Over 2.9 million Salvadorans reside abroad, 95% of them in the 50 states. Family remittances from Salvadorans living abroad exceed $4 billion —some 16% of the country’s Gross Domestic Product.

Billboards for Western Union, MoneyGram and other wire transfer services crop up all over the countryside, from San Salvador down to the smallest towns in the interior. Millions of Salvadorans have come to depend on these remesas for everything from buying groceries to paying their monthly cellphone bill.

Nearly all this money comes from north of the Río Grande, and the reason for that is simple: during the civil war, nearly a quarter of the population fled the country. Today, California alone is home to 1.2 million salvadoreños, with sizeable communities located in Washington, D.C., New York and South Florida.

Martínez said his government wants a dialogue with the Department of Homeland Security and also to establish agreements with state and local authorities in the United States. The groundwork for such an arrangement was laid out during a recent meeting between Salvadoran officials and U.S. Secretary of Homeland Security Janet Napolitano.

“We are suggesting that if, for example, you must deport someone with children, that person should be given the opportunity to leave the country in an orderly way, rather than being removed or taken from his or her workplace immediately,” he said.

“There must be alternative mechanisms for locating these people, especially when there are children, pregnant women or elderly adults in their lives,” Martínez stressed. “We are also looking to the administration to differentiate between people who have criminal records and those who are being deported simply for not having the proper documents.”

In fiscal years 2009 and 2010, according to Napolitano, ICE removed a record 779,000 illegal immigrants from the United States, of which 195,000 were convicted criminals.

“We understand that this is a very complicated issue domestically in the United States,” said Martínez. “El Salvador is seeking ways that bring development to rural communities as a way to stop immigration, and to help Salvadorans already living in the United States.”

Tour guide Eduardo Arriaza, 48, was one such salvadoreño. He spent six years in the United States and four years in Canada.

“I was studying mechanical and industrial engineering, but when the war broke out, I had to leave,” he said. “The environment was unstable and bullets were flying all around and I could have gotten killed at any moment. So I left the country and started traveling to Texas and Oklahome to buy cars and bring them back down to El Salvador to sell them. That was a good business in those days.”

In San Francisco, Arriaza worked for a carpet store. The money was good, but he eventually decided to return to El Salvador because it had been years since he’d seen his children, now 18 and 20 years old.

“Things are much more secure now,” he said. “For a few years now, I’ve been working as a tour guide, and now I’m moving forward into Guatemala, Honduras and Nicaragua. That gave me an opportunity not only to get to know places but people as well. That’s one of the reasons I got into this business — because people didn’t know anything about El Salvador.”

That’s also one of Rafael Leret’s goals. As president of the Salvadoran Chamber of Tourism (known by its Spanish acronym Casatur), Leret wants foreigners to come see El Salvador’s beauty and spend money here in the process.

“Our civil war ended 19 years ago, but many people think we’re still at war,” he said, only half-joking. “Our chamber was created in 2008 and includes all the associations in the tourism buisiness — restaurants, airlines, tour operators, hotels and handicrafts groups. We have eight directors from the public sector and eight from the private sector, and an annual budget of aorund $8.5 million. We ‘re starting to rebuild our tourism infrastructure, and we’re making a lot of effort to turn El Salvador into a world-class tourist destination.”

In 2009, said Leret, the country received 1.6 million visitors and about $800 million in tourism revenue, with 2010 figures expected to show a 10% growth.

Some 60% of those visitors are from Central America, 35% are from the United States and the remaining 5% are from Europe and Canada. Interestingly, about 60% of the U.S. visitors are of Salvadoran origin.

“We have two major groups of people: nostalgic Salvadorans who live outside the country, and corporate travelers. What we are trying to do is increase leisure and convention tourism,” he said.

“The visiting Salvadorans don’t’ use tourist services too much, but they come with money to spend on their families and they eat at restaurants and they rent cars,” spending $95 a day per person average. That compares to average daily expenditures of $115-120 for leisure tourists.

But when it comes to making money from tourism, El Salvador lags behind. Leret said Central America generates around $8 billion a year from tourism, or roughly 5% of total regional GDP. But tiny Belize earns 20% of its GDP from tourism, and Costa Rica is over 12%. In El Salvador, by comparison, tourism brings in only 2.8% of total GDP.

He said El Salvador has around 10,000 hotel rooms, but only 1,500 are in four- or five-star properties. There’s certainly no lack of things to do in this Massachusetts-sized country — from shopping in cosmopolitan San Salvador to volcano-climbing at Quetzaltepec along the road to La Libertad.

One company even promotes “guerrilla tourism” packages, which takes visitors on to former FMLN training camps, sites of important battles and the Museum of the Revolution in Perquín, capital of the department of Morazán — and of course, San Salvador’s Monumento a los Desparecidos.

Also well worth visiting is Joya de Cerén, a pre-Columbian Maya farming village not far from San Salvador that has been preserved intact ever since its destruction by volcanic ash around 600 A.D. Recently declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site, it ranks as El Salvador’s most important archaeological excavation.

“We want to mix the Mayan experience with the adventure experience — surfing, kayaking, mountain-climbing and rafting,” said Leret. “Some countries have eight spots for surfing. We have 14. Just a short drive from San Salvador, you can find lots of boutique hotels specifically targeted at surfers.”

One such hotel is Casa de Mar along Playa Sunzal, located along the Pacific coast 45 kilometers from the capital city. It costs $100 a night, but there are several cheaper places that range from $30 to $70 per night. Adjacent to Casa de Mar is the famous Café Sunzal, covered with a thatched roof and overlooking the windswept coast. Here, one can enjoy the house specialty, Langosta Café Sunzal, “rellena de mousse de camarón y queso derretido, acompañada con ensalada verde y papas fritas,” all for only $16.55. Wash it down with an ice-cold Pilsener beer for an additional $1.70 — and jump in the ocean before heading back to the capital. As Leren quipped, “El Salvador is the country of 45 minutes. Nothing is far away.”

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